Meditations – Marcus Aurelius
I just finished Meditations and have written down quotes from it that I wish to remember. As I’ve described in this post, I’m absolutely astounded at the knowledge of the Ancient World and just now realize what a disaster the fall of the Roman Empire was for the progress of human understanding about the universe. I’m fascinated by this knowledge and this is the first of many books I will be reading.
Failure to observe what is in the mind of another has seldom made a man unhappy; but those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy.
Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, seashores, and mountains; and you, too, are wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in your power whenever you choose to retire into yourself. For there is no retreat that is quieter or freer from trouble than a man’s own soul, especially when he has within him such thoughts that by looking into them he is immediately in perfect tranquillity; and tranquillity is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind.
But perhaps the desire of the thing called fame torments you. See how soon everything is forgotten, and look at the chaos of infinite time on each side of the present, and the emptiness of applause, and the fickleness and lack of judgement in those who pretend to give praise, and the narrowness of its domain, and be quiet at last.
This then remains: Remember to retire into this little territory of your own, and above all do not distract or strain yourself, but be free, and look at things as a man, as a human being, as a citizen, as a mortal. But among these things readiest to hand to which you should turn, let there be these two: One is that things do not touch the soul, for they are external and remain immovable; so our perturbations come only from our inner opinions. The other is that all the things you see around you change immediately and will no longer be; and constantly beat in mind how many of these changes you have already witnessed. The universe is transformation: life is opinion.
Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.
How much trouble he avoids who does not look to see what his neighbor says or does or things, but only to what he does himself, that it may be just and pure; or as Agathon says, look not round at the depraved morals of others, but run straight along the line without deviating from it.
He who has a vehement desire for posthumous fame does not consider that everyone one of those who remember him will himself also die very soon; then again also they who have succeeded them, until the whole remembrance shall have been extinguished as it is transmitted through men who foolishly admire and perish. But suppose that those who will remember are even immortal, and that the remembrance will be immortal, what then is this to you? And I say not what is it to the dead, but what is it to the living? What is praise except indeed so far as it has a certain utility? For you now reject unseasonably the gift of nature, clinging to something else….
Occupy yourself with few things, says the philosopher, if you would be tranquil. But consider if it would not be better to say, Do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of a social animal naturally requires, and as it requires. For this brings not only the tranquillity that comes from doing well, but also that which comes from doing few things. Since the greatest part of what we say and do is unnecessary, dispensing with such activities affords a man more leisure and less uneasiness. Accordingly on every occasion a man should ask himself, Is this one of the unnecessary things? Now a man should take away not only unnecessary acts, but also unnecessary thoughts so that superfluous acts will not follow after.
Consider, for example the times of Vespasian. You will see all these things, people marrying, bringing up children, sick, dying, warring, feasting, trafficking, cultivating the ground, flattering, obstinately arrogant, suspecting, plotting, wishing for some to die, grumbling about the present, loving, heaping up treasure, desiring consulship, kingly power. Well then, that life of these people no longer exists at all. Again, remove to the times of Trajan. Again, all is the same. Their life, too, is gone.
Once familiar words are not antiquated, as are the names of those who famed of old: Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Leonnatus, and a little later also Scipio and Cato, then Augustus, then also Hadrian and Antoninus. For all things soon pass away and become a mere tale, and complete oblivion soon buries them.
Observe constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom yourself to consider that the nature of the universe loves nothing so much as to change the things that are and to make new things like them.
Add to the reckoning all those you have known, one after another. One man after burying another has been laid out dead, and another buries him: and all this in a short time. To conclude, always observe how ephemeral and worthless human things are, and what was yesterday a speck of semen tomorrow will be a mummy or ashes. Pass then through this little space of time conformably to nature, and end your journey in content, just as an olive falls off when it is ripe, blessing nature who produced it and thanking the tree on which it grew.
I am composed of the formal and the material; and neither of them will perish into nonexistence, as neither of them came into existence out of nonexistence. Every part of me then will be reduced by change into some part of the universe, and that again will change into another part of the universe, and so on forever. And by consequence of such a change, I, too, exist, and those who begot me, and so on forever in the other direction.
Such as are your habitual thoughts, so also will be the character of your mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts.
But to revere and honor your own mind will make you content with yourself, in harmony with society, and in agreement with the gods, praising all that they give and have ordered.
How many together with whom I came into the world are already gone out of it!
Everything material soon disappears in the substance of the whole; and everything formal (casual) is very soon taken back into the universal reason; and the memory of everything is very soon overwhelmed in time.
Is any man afraid of change? What can take place without change? What then is more pleasing or more suitable to the universal nature? And can you take a hot bath unless the wood for the fire undergoes a change? And can you be nourished unless the food undergoes a change? And can anything else that is useful be accomplished without change? Do you not see then that for yourself also to change is just the same, and equally necessary for the universal nature?
In a little while you will have forgotten everything; in a little while everything will have forgotten you.
From Plato: “The man who has an elevated mind and takes a view of all time and of all substance, do you suppose it possible for him to think that human life is anything great?” ‘It is not possible,’ he said. ‘Such a man then will think that death also is no evil.’ ‘Certainly not.'”
This a fine saying of Plato: That he who is discoursing about men should look also at earthly things as if he viewed them from some higher place; should look at them in their assemblies, armies, agricultural labors, marriages, treaties, births, deaths, noise of the courts of justice, desert places, various nations of barbarians, feasts, lamentations, markets, a mixture of all things and an orderly combination of contraries.
Consider yourself to be dead, and to have completed your life up to the present time; and live, according to nature, the remainder that is allowed you.
He who does not know what the world is does not know where he is. And he who does not know for what purpose the world exists, does not know who he is, or what the world is. But he who has failed in any one of these things could not even say for what purpose he exists himself. What then do you think of him who avoids or seeks the praise of those who applaud, of men who know not either where they are or who they are?
Look down from above on the countless herds of men and their countless solemnities, and the infinitely varied voyagings in the storms and calms, and the varieties of those who are born, who live together, and die. And consider, too, the life lived by others long ago, and the life of those who will live after you, and the life now lived among barbarous nations, and how many have never even heard your name, and how many will soon forget it, and how they who perhaps now are praising you will very soon blame you, and that neither a posthumous name is of any value, nor reputation, nor anything else.
You can rid yourself of many useless things among those that disturb you, for they lie entirely in your imagination; and you will then gain for yourself ample space by comprehending the whole universe in your mind, and by contemplating the eternity of time, and observing the rapid change of every part of everything, how short is the time from birth to dissolution, and the illimitable time before birth as well as the equally boundless time after dissolution.
What a great soul is that which is ready, at any requisite moment, to be separated from the body and then to be extinguished or dispersed or continue to exist. But this readiness must come from a man’s own judgement, not from mere obstinacy, as with the Christians, but considerately and with dignity and in a way to persuade another, without tragic show.
Seventh, that it is not men’s acts that disturb us, for those acts have their foundation in men’s ruling principles, but it is our own opinions that disturb us. Take away these opinions then, and resolve to dismiss your judgement about an act as if it were something grievous, and your anger is gone. How then shall I take away these opinions? By reflecting that no wrongful act of another brings shame on you: for unless that which is shameful is alone bad, you also must of necessity do many things wrong, and become a robber and everything else.
And let this truth be present to you in the excitement of anger, that to be moved by passion is not manly, but that mildness and gentleness, as they are more agreeable to human nature, so also are they more manly; and he who possesses these qualities possesses strength, nerves, and courage, and not the man who is subject to fits of passion and discontent.
Think of the country mouse and of the town mouse, and of the alarm and trepidation of the town mouse.
I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others. If then a god or a wise teacher should present himself to a man and bid him to think of nothing and to design nothing that he would not express as soon as he conceived it, he could not endure it even for a single day. So it is clear that we accord much more respect to what our neighbors think of us than to what we think of ourselves.
Consider that before long you will be nobody and nowhere, nor will any of the things exist that you now see, nor any of those who are now living. For all things are formed by nature to change and be turned and to perish in order that other things in continuous succession may exist.
Consider that everything is opinion, and opinion is in your power. Take away then, when you choose, your opinion, and like a mariner who has rounded the headland, you will find calm, everything stable, and a waveless bay.